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Lord of Ultima

Score: 82%
ESRB: Not Yet Rated
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Phenomic
Media: Internet Browser/1
Players: 1
Genre: Strategy/ Online

Graphics & Sound:

When a publicity blurb announcing the upcoming strategy MMO Lord of Ultima recently caught my eye, it is a woeful understatement to say that my interest was piqued. A longtime fan of the iconic series that spanned nearly twenty years, I quickly navigated to the advertised site and joined in the open beta. One of the most surprising features of Lord of Ultima is the fact there there is nothing to install. It is a browser-based game that can be loaded and played directly in most web browsers. Learning of this, I was a bit suspicious as I loaded the game for the first time, as my experiences with other such games have provided mostly disappointing results, especially in the visual and audio department. While Lord of Ultima does not include sound, the graphics are beautifully rendered, with a modicum of animation to keep the screen refreshed, but without overloading the browser with so much information as to be burdensome. Despite my preconceptions, I was very pleasantly surprised by the level of detail offered. The lack of sound, while noticeable, does not overly detract from the game and, I'm guessing, is due to strain it might cause across multiple browser platforms. Given the supposed technical hurdles sound would incur, it is an understandable omission.

Gameplay:

After the fall of Sosaria (a reference to the original trilogy Ultima I-III), the new world of Caledonia has arisen and needs to be settled. The premise behind Lord of Ultima is that this new world, made of up several continents, needs a new ruler. Players are posed the question from the onset, "Are you the one to unite the lands and earn the title Lord of Ultima?". Each player is given control of a city when they begin the game. At this point, players begin to build up the city by gathering resources and constructing a variety of buildings, as well as recruiting military units. A quest-based tutorial will walk players through the fundamentals of city oversight. Like many strategy games, players will need to allocate certain resources to maintaining troops, while gathering enough resources to continue the growth effort. As the player's resource stores grow, the option of founding new cities becomes available. The announced end-game goal is for one player (per server) to eventually control all of the cities on all of the continents, either through military prowess or through diplomatic negotiations. Players have the ability to trade goods and form alliances with other players. This increases the power-base of the players and provides more resources to be used in the foundation of new cities. When constructing cities, players will have the opportunity to build a castle. This opens the door for conquest, but the door swings both ways. Building the castle allows the player to raid other cities, but it also opens the door to the possibility of losing their city to a more powerful adversary. If a city is lost, the player is given a new city with which to start the entire process over again, so the decision of whether or not to build a castle is an important one indeed. Cities without castles can still be raided for resources, but they cannot be captured by aggressive neighbors.

Each continent contains dungeons, boss monsters and shrines scattered across the land. Armies can be sent to raid the dungeons or challenge the boss monsters. Completing a dungeon or defeating a boss will reward the player with an artifact. These artifacts may give the player extra resources or they might speed up the construction or recruitment time of buildings or military units. A word of warning though, use of these artifacts can quickly become addictive. The shrines will become key as the game progresses. As alliances grow in power, shrines will become active. Each continent has eight shrines, each corresponding to a differing virtue (hearkening back to the later games in the Ultima series). New cities can be built on these shrines as they become active. Cities built on the shrines will receive various bonuses to resources, recruitment or both, but will also be open to invasion at all times, regardless of "castle" status. According to the information provided, holding these shrines will be important keys to overall victory.


Difficulty:

The primary difficulty factor in Lord of Ultima is resource-gathering and city placement. Cities are randomly placed when a player enters the realm. Unfortunately, not all areas are equally rich in resources, nor do all areas have access to waterways. Both of these factors can prove pivotal for the player truly into the spirit of competition and conquest. Resources are an absolute necessity, especially early on. I created several accounts across a couple of servers to test the disparity of city makeup. One city I found easily doubled the production of resources over another city within the same time period, using the exact same process of construction. Needless to say, the cities that can grow the fastest will have the competitive edge, as those players will then be able to expand to new cities more rapidly. Having waterway access helps tremendously with trade and moving of goods to new cities. Because of the randomness of the placement, if a player invites a friend to join the game, that friend might end up on the same continent, or they might end up half way across the world. If the latter is true, then a potential move is possible. However, only with access to water will either player be able to establish a new city and move resources to a different continent.

Lord of Ultima allows players to control some aspects of the game through various queues. For instance, all cities have a building queue which allows the player to set up to six commands for various construction projects to be carried out in order. Recruitment of military units works in a similar fashion. However, these queues are initially very limiting in their scope. As an example, the building queue only allows for six commands to be stored, and resources for those projects must be available when the selection is made. For players that choose to do so, ministers can be appointed to oversee the various queues. The building minister not only extends the queue from six to sixteen, he also allows to the player to queue up construction orders for buildings which the player does not yet have the available resources to carry out. Such orders will be carried out once the needed resources are gathered. The war minister allows for recurring dungeon raids, while the defense minister provides better city defense and allied response. There is a caveat however: appointment of ministers costs diamonds.


Game Mechanics:

As with many other "free-to-play" games currently available, players can experience almost the entire scope of Lord of Ultima without any out of pocket expenses. However, there are extra goodies available to those players who can afford to shell out some money for in-game currency. This currency, depicted as diamonds, can be used to appoint ministers as well as to purchase those previously mentioned addictive artifacts. While not unreasonably priced (current rates range from 500/$5 to 13000/$100), this paradigm definitely favors those players with the money to take advantage of the system. Certainly anyone can build a powerful city given enough time, but this "pay-for-power" structure will allow the paying players to sprint out of the gate, establishing firm footholds before their "diamondless" counterparts are even out of the proverbial stone age. This is not meant to sound disparaging, as most people will understand that the developers have spent and are spending a great deal of time on this game and there must be a profit mechanism to fund these efforts. It is just something for the players to be aware of up front, especially those that are playing on a truly competitive level.

Navigation around Lord of Ultima is fairly straightforward. There are two views for the player, the city view and the region view. The city view is a zoomed in view of the city, allowing the player to scroll around, view the various land available and build the buildings necessary to strengthen the city. Zooming out to region view allows an overview of the world, allowing easy access to nearby dungeons, the ability to scout neighboring cities and search for roaming bosses. My only complaint is that the city view is a little tight and I would have liked a bit wider view, but I can understand that resource limitation might also dictate this decision. The various queues are all mini windows that are intuitive and easily navigable by most computer-savvy users. There have been a few bugs noticed since the game went live on April 20, but the development team has done an outstanding job of addressing most of these in a very timely fashion. While there are a few features I would like to see implemented, such as a detailed report on city building resources, overall the game is easy to grasp and fun to play, at least for a while.

Over the course of my time playing, I tested Lord of Ultima across four browsers and four computers. I did not have any issues on a fairly robust PC (listed in the test system specs). I also played it on an older laptop which, despite being five years old, was able to handle the graphical demands of the game. Neither my iMac nor my MacBook Pro experienced any difficulties with the rendering of the game display either. As for the browsers tested, Firefox, OmniWeb and IE all worked well. I ran into some difficulty with Safari, issues which were also reported on the support forum boards. I did not personally test Opera or Chrome, but reports are that Lord of Ultima runs fine in Chrome, but does not do well in Opera.

In summary, while the ties to the original Ultima series are cursory, it was fun and nostalgic to venture back into the realm that Lord British once ruled with a benevolent hand. Lord of Ultima is entertaining and engaging in the beginning, but the long term appeal may be somewhat limited to die-hard strategy players. For me, seeing this kind of game available free via a web interface, with the quality graphics and a dedicated staff, is an impressive and somewhat scary revelation. As one of my fellow gamers remarked on a forum post, "This (Lord of Ultima) may not be the game that gets me fired from my job, but it will surely be something similar."


-The Mung Bard, GameVortex Communications
AKA Buddy Ethridge

Minimum System Requirements:



Web Browser (see review for specifics)
 

Test System:



OS: XP, Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo CPU 3.06 GHz, Memory: 2.0 GB of RAM, Video Card: NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTS 512

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